The Early History of God

01.01.03 | Denver Journal, Old Testament, Richard S. Hess | by Mark S. Smith

    A review of Mark Smith's, "The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd edition," by Dr. Richard Hess.

    Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 2003

    The reprint of this important volume is a welcome event. The work represents a unique synthesis of virtualy all of the relevant textual (biblical and otherwise) and much of the archaeological evidence. In the twelve years since the appearance of the first edition there has been a great deal written on the subject of ancient Israelite religion. Smith incorporates much of it into his discussion, occasionally in the text and more often in the footnotes. His work attenuates some of his arguments in the light of more recent discussions.

    Smith argues that there are three major tendencies in the history of Israelite religion. There is the convergence of the characteristics of deities such as El, Baal, and Asherah into those of Yahweh. There is the divergence of the figures of Baal and Asherah from Yahweh. Finally, there is the role of the Monarchy in the acceptance of various deities and images associated with Yahweh as well as rejection of these late in the Monarchy under Josiah.

    Smith then turns his attention toward the evidence for various deities during the period of the Judges, i.e., Iron Age I. For him, this was largely a time that saw the convergence of deities such as El and Yahweh. A few poetic texts such as Deuteronomy 32, Exodus 15, and Psalm 82 preserve the belief of this period where El was still the chief deity and Yahweh (like Baal in the Ugaritic literature) was a subordinate. References to the goddess Asherah and to asherahs in the Bible do not prove that this goddess was recognized in Iron Age Israel. They are either generic references to female deities (in the case of the plural form), references to a cult image of Yahweh, or a kind of resurrection of the goddess by the later Deuteronomists who write this deity's name back into the history of Israel in an odd attempt to demonstrate its Monarchical apostasy.

    For Smith, El was never a threat and simply became assimilated with Yahweh in the first millennium, as evidenced by the early divine name Yahweh-El. Baal was a clear threat from the ninth century onwards as the account of Ahab and Jezebel's attempt to introduce the Tyrian form of this deity (Baal Shamem) led to a prophetic revolt and intolerance for the god. Nevertheless, various characteristics such as those of the storm and stormcloud were adopted and applied to Yahweh. As noted, Asherah was reduced to a cult symbol of Yahweh. However, the female characteristics of Yahweh and some background to the personification of Wisdom (e.g., Proverbs 3) owe their origins to Asherah. The sun deity was assumed by Yahweh who took on its characteristics. The actual symbol of the sun in the form of the winged sun disk became a later symbol of the Judean monarchy. The cult of the dead was largely tolerated, except possibly for necromancy, until the eighth century or later, when the prophetic literature begins to condemn it.

    The work is a mine of data and information that is available nowhere else. Its strength lies in the assimilation of extrabiblical textual data from virtually every relevant source for the Bronze and Iron Ages as well as the Classical material. Although not as comprehensive as Zevit (The Religions of Ancient Israel) in terms of the material culture (or close analysis of the relevant Hebrew inscriptions), Smith simply covers more texts than anyone else.

    Smith is also aware of the latest critical intepretations of the biblical data. He is able to synthesize this into a convincing presentation that is difficult to fault. Nevetheless, it remains open to question whether the reader will be persuaded of all the critical reconstructions that the author assumes. Like other authors in this vein who wish to argue a particular form of the evolution of Israelite religion, there is the inevitable special pleading for late dating the inconvenient biblical texts that suggest otherwise. Although one does not wish to eschew the benefits of critical questions, I would hesitate to redate as many texts as easily as Smith does. Perhaps the Deuteronomists did editorialize Israel's history, but perhaps there was more there earlier than some writers such as Smith would have us to believe.

    One other point should be noted and it is one that Smith himself is aware of. There are many different sources from so many different places, times, and genres that are used to reconstruct this material. On the one hand, this diversity can provide a measure of certainty. If there are multiple witnesses, surely that is persuasive. However, the sources are often fragmentary and of uncertain interpretation. Therefore, what is gained in terms of comprehensiveness is sometimes lost in terms of individual evaluation of the various sources to which reference is made. Texts themselves are witnesses only when they are correctly interpreted.

    These general criticisms, however, should not discourage the reader from studying this volume. It is the best introduction to the field of Israelite religion for a student of the Bible who wishes to understand what the fuss is all about when it comes to the God of Israel.

    Personal disagreements aside, I noted only two factual matters for correction, a remarkably small number for a book of this depth and breadth.

    On p. 24 n 18 where he discusses sacred prostitution, Smith seems unaware of the important work of W. G. Lambert, "Prostitution." Pp. 127-157 in V. Haas ed., Au�enseiter und Randgruppen: Beitr�ge zu einer Sozialgeschichte des Alten Orients. Xenia: Konstanzer Althistorische Vortr�ge und Forschungen, Heft 32, Konstanz: Universit�tsverlag, 1992. This qualifies assumptions that there was no sacred prostitution in the ancient world with a few specific examples.

    On p. 29, the reference to the arrowheads purported to come from El-Khadr near Bethlehem remains without demonstration. Apparently, the source for this information was not a controlled excavation so that archaeological evidence is lacking. Of the nearly fifty arrowheads that have so far been published and whose authenticity seems confirmed, all but this small group of four originated somewhere in Lebanon. The "El-Khadr" arrowheads cannot be confirmed as to their origin and this cannot be used for evidence of the deity Anat in Palestine. More likely, they come from the same source as the other arrowheads.

    Richard S. Hess
    Professor of Old Testament
    Denver Seminary

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